After Transfiguration

February 11, 2024
II Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9: 2-9

Wow, those Elijah stories are exciting, (especially when Becca tells them.) Elijah commands the water and the wind and fire.

Remember the time that Elijah called for a contest to prove that his God was real? Remember how he shamed the prophets of Baal who danced and shouted to their god for hours, even cutting themselves to make a blood sacrifice? But nope, fire did not appear.

When the prophets of Baal finally give up, Elijah has people pour big jars of water all over the altar, three times, just to make sure that it is truly saturated. Then Elijah prays and calls on his God, the God of his ancestors, the God YHWH, to rain down fire – and it happens. Fire comes down from the sky and it is so hot that burns up all the animal sacrifice and all the wood, even the stones and all the water are gone.

And at the end of his life, Elijah disappears in the wind and flame himself.

Is it any wonder that it is Elijah that the disciples see next to Jesus when they have that bizarre experience on the mountain? Of course Moses is there too because he has his own experience of seeing fire, a burning bush that doesn’t burn up. And Moses meets God on the mountain top where the law is received.

Now the disciples see that Jesus is part of that group, the powerful prophets. And Peter, James and John are there, they get to experience – the terror of it all.

Mountain top experiences are times when we are sure we see clearly, even if it is sort of strange and mystical. It seems very real and very holy all at the same time. What we feel and experience is so out of the ordinary that we are sure that it has finally happened: God has intervened and things are finally put right. We are one with everything, the barriers are broken. The world will never be the same.

What we realize when we come back down the mountain, what Moses realized, what Elisha realized (after Elijah disappeared) what Jesus, Peter, James and John experience is that they will never be the same – but the world, it is still the same. The world has not yet changed.

What does any of this have to do with racial justice? We have paired Transfiguration Sunday and racial justice together today. I admit that I had to go to my guru, Michelle, for help with the connections. Michelle always comes through. Michelle pointed me toward how sometimes white people have an experience where we feel like we finally cracked the code of racism.

We read books and listen to podcasts, we pray and give money, we even put ourselves in spaces that aren’t all white because we are going to understand and eradicate racism, in ourselves, in our families, in society, even in our church. We are sincere disciples, moving toward new life.

At some point along the way we have a really amazing insight. Or perhaps it is an experience where we feel like we truly understand and are ready to lay down our privilege as white people. Or maybe it is an event where we feel like the barriers of race have disappeared and everyone gathered is all on the same level, the caste system has been broken. It is so beautiful, so impossible. We see Jesus and MLK and Harriet Tubman all together; Frederick Douglas and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Vincent Harding. Che Guevara and Ghandi and Wilma Mankiller and Gloria Steinem. We are all one.

It is a mountain top experience. We will, we can “erase racism.” We can dismantle this system that has trapped us all. We can build the Beloved Community that Dr King saw. Si se puede. Yes we can. We will stay here on this mountain where we are all beloved children of God.

And then it happens, right there, the light shifts, someone is rude and crude. Someone else says something thoughtless, off the top of their head that is just a little bit racist. And what we thought was possible, seems once again totally out of reach. We are back down the mountain in a flash.


At the top of the mountain, Peter wants to hold onto the moment. I mean did you hear that voice? “This is my Beloved, my own. Listen to this One.” Despite how scared he is by it all, Peter is ready to build tents, make that spot on the mountain a ritual site, so people can come back again and again. It is part of the tradition to name the well, name the rock, mark the places where people have met God, where God has shown up. What else can you do but preserve the moment. Peter is responding as a good and faithful Jew, by marking the spot where God appeared, where God speaks.

Before Peter can start measuring out where the shelters should go, the light shifts, the cloud dissipates, and the moment is gone. Moses and Elijah are gone. The voice is silent. It is just Jesus and his friends, on a mountain. The silence is loud as they start back down the mountain. Then Jesus says, “By the way, don’t tell anyone what you saw, until the Promised One is risen from the dead.” The friends look at each other; now the silence is really loud, until they start debating what in the world Jesus means.

Peter, James, John and Jesus, make their way back down the mountain to real and mundane life, where people are hungry and sick and arguing, where God seems far away, where Moses and Elijah are long gone, and they rejoin the group of Jesus followers, trying to get it right but often not understanding at all what is going on. —————————

My family has been part of the Prince Georges Community Pool, a private pool in Mt Rainier, for about 25 years. Some of you are members or have been members. The pool’s origin story is like that of many private pools in this country. It began in 1956 as a “whites only” pool. In 1974, Raymond Bowlding, father of one of the few black families living in Mt Rainier at the time, had five children who wanted to swim in their neighborhood. Mr Bowlding brought a complaint against the pool. With the NAACP backing him, the case went to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the Maryland Commission on Human Rights. Mr Bowlding was successful in forcing the pool to integrate. He made it to the top of the mountain and saw that things could be different in 1975. But he still wouldn’t let his kids go to that pool. As told to the Washington Post, when his son said, Now can we go swimming, Mr Bowlding said, “Fool, you can’t go to that pool, they’ll drown you.”

So much for a mountain top experience.

In 2015, 40 years later, the historically white pool – which has made some progress in terms of integration, invited the Bowlding children, who by now live up and down the east coast, to come to the pool one Saturday. Their father, who died in 1994, was to be honored. It was another mountain top experience. A literal shelter was built, with an engraved plaque that reads “In honor of Raymond Bowlding whose courage and perseverance led to the integration of PG Pool in 1975.” (How much more biblical could we get than to build a shelter to commemorate where we got it right, where we saw the light.) This celebratory event even inspired a local actor to write a play about the terrible history of pools in this country.

And – just like in the biblical story, the pool members came back down off that mountain where everything seems clear – and we saw the racism that still exists in this country, and at our beloved pool. Each summer we hear stories of black children who are bullied, of black guests in the parking lot who are questioned or challenged about their presence.

In the summer of 2020, with the pandemic raging and the country beginning to reckon with its racial history, it was clearer than ever that there was more to be done at the pool. Two pool members began conversations and the DISCO group was hatched. DISCO stands for diversity, inclusion, sharing community organizing. The S also stands for snacks since there is always food and drink at the meetings along with a minute or two of dancing under the disco ball. ——————-

It is hard to come down from mountain top experiences, whether they occur on a literal mountain or not. The unfinished work awaits us. Go back to the amazing story of Elijah disappearing into the heavens with fire. What an experience for Elisha to witness. What a way for Elisha to receive the mantle of prophecy from Elijah. You would think that Elisha would be walking on air for quite some time after that. That he would be so filled with astonishment and wonder that he would treat everyone he met with love and care, knowing that he was now the prophet. You might even think he would overdo it in terms of being God’s representative.

Elisha does manage to play the prophet for a while. He picks up the cloak that Elijah left behind and tries it out; Elisha parts the waters of the river Jordan, just like Elijah had done. Then along comes the band of prophets from Jericho who want to search for Elijah, because he couldn’t have just disappeared from the face of the earth. Elisha says no, don’t bother searching for him. But the Jericho prophets will not let it rest and Elisha gets tired of arguing with them. So he tells them to go ahead and search but you won’t find anything. The prophets look for three days and come back empty handed. Elisha says, “I told you so.”

Then, the text says, Elisha is called upon to “heal” some water that had been making the people and the land sick. And he does it, he heals the water. He is a true prophet: he parts the waters and heals the waters.

As Elisha heads up to Bethel, he is greeted by a bunch of young ruffians who make fun of him. Here is the new prophet Elisha, trying to get his feet under him, trying on this new title and persona and he is challenged by a bunch of bratty kids. The band of boys make fun of him, yelling “Baldy, baldy. Get out of here, baldy McBald face.”

Elisha, this newly installed prophet, can not find that deep breath, calm place, within himself. He is enraged. He is Elisha the prophet, commissioned by Elijah himself. How dare they say this to him! Calling him bald!  Elisha calls on his new found God power, and curses the boys. Suddenly, out of the woods, two mamma bears appear and maul the boys, 42 of them. (That is an oddly specific number. Please tell me what that is about.) And then, Elisha walks on.

Clearly Elisha has a hard time coming off the mountain top experience, being back among the hoi polloi. This prophet thing is not going to be as easy or glamorous as he might have imagined. ——————-

Yesterday, the DISCO group took another step toward the mountain – and under the disco ball. We held a mid-winter pool party to raise money so we can hire a facilitator to help us talk about the history of the pool and how we can be better neighbors in our own community. We hope we will soon hit our target of $5000 to pay a trained facilitator, an African American woman, who will lead us in six community conversations. We know that not everyone is on board with these community conversations, and we know that six conversations will not solve everything. We have to keep talking – and in the pool context, swimming and picnicking help a lot. Will we get to the point where we see change? Where things seem to glow?

It is hard to have a mountain top, life changing experience and then have to return down the mountain to the same old world and work where nothing seems to have changed – except you.

That’s why we have groups like DISCO, like the racial justice group, like this congregation, because the work down here at the bottom of the mountain is too massive to do alone. And when we work together, even the hardest work can become joyful. In fact, if there isn’t some joy, we might want to rethink our tactics and strategies. If we are calling down curses on those who laugh at us, like the boys yelling baldy McBald face, we need to regroup. (Sometimes we aren’t supposed to act exactly like the prophets.)

As we work to understand and dismantle racism, this congregation has at least one advantage over the pool community. Yes, the pool has The Pool, and beautiful acreage and potlucks.

We have baptismal water and a rejuvenating back swamp and communion – and the best potlucks. What we also have in the church, that the pool doesn’t have, is a shared story in the bible. I am not saying the bible has the answers necessarily. But it gives us shared language and shared stories to wrestle with. And we have our shared commitment to following in the Jesus way as we learn and grow and work for change in ourselves and in the world.

We pray there will be mountain top experiences along the way, for us as individuals and maybe even small groups of us. And when we inevitably have to come back down the mountain, this faithful group will be here to sing and pray and work together. Thanks be to God.